Since it has become trendy for Western politicians to critize Islam, Muslims, and/or Islamic practices, the leader of the House of Commons had to put his two cent into this current intellectual "crusade" against Islam.
British Official Criticizes Muslim Veil
By ALAN COWELL
Published: October 7, 2006
LONDON, Oct. 6 — As foreign secretary, Jack Straw was the quintessential British diplomat, sliding smoothly between the world’s trouble spots, a judicious word here, a deferential nod there, rarely forgetting his lawyer’s training — in public, at least — by misspeaking or failing to observe the sensitivities of hosts from Tehran to Washington.
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In Blackburn, England, where these women were Friday, Jack Straw says he first thought Muslim veils work against cohesion in society.
But this week, his words were anything but diplomatic.
In a remarkable series of utterances, Mr. Straw, now the leader of the House of Commons, has criticized the Islamic custom of wearing a full facial veil and urged Muslim women to remove it when talking to him in his district office in northwestern England. The veil, he wrote this week in his local newspaper, The Lancashire Telegraph, is “such a visible statement of separation and of difference” as to jeopardize British social harmony.
His remarks have ignited a furious national debate over political correctness and religious identity. The discussion does not have the same incendiary prominence as Pope Benedict XVI’s recent comments on Islam, or the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers last February. But it has provoked some of the same collisions of values and perceptions.
It was in his district office in Blackburn, Lancashire, Mr. Straw said in his newspaper article, that he began to ruminate a year ago on the question of the facial veil — known as the niqab — and whether it damaged relationships between people of different ethnic backgrounds.
“There is a wider issue here,” Mr. Straw told the BBC on Friday. “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers, people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day. That’s made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That’s just a fact of life.
“I come to this out of a profound commitment to equal rights for Muslim communities and an equal concern about adverse development, about parallel communities.”
Asked if he would support the idea of the full veil being abandoned altogether, he said: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”
After the July 7, 2005, London bombings and growing concern about homegrown terrorism, Britain is fretting over the status of its 1.6 million Muslims, whose representatives complain frequently of discrimination.
The protestations were amplified just weeks ago, when John Reid, the home secretary, urged Muslims to watch their children for the “telltale signs” of radicalism, prompting some to say the government was trying to persuade Muslims to spy on their offspring.
“The Muslim community does not need lessons in dress from Jack Straw, any more than it needs lessons in parenting from John Reid,” said Nazreen Nawaz, a spokeswoman for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical group that says it seeks pan-Islamic rule through peaceful means. Her remarks were part of a chorus of vehement protests from Islamic groups on Friday.
Mr. Straw won some allies. “The veil does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims,” said Daud Abdullah, an official of the Muslim Council of Britain. “One can understand this.”
And Hazel Blears, a senior Labor Party official, defended Mr. Straw by saying there should be a broader discussion with “views from all sections of the community.”
But Prime Minister Tony Blair distanced himself, saying through a spokesman that Mr. Straw’s decision to make the remarks “does not make it government policy.”
In Europe, the question of the Islamic veil is one that has divided opinion in several countries, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. In Turkey, secular for over 80 years, the Islamic head scarf has become an emblem of the strains between secularist and Islamic tendencies.
In Britain, though, Mr. Straw’s remark underscored increasing worries among public officials that the country’s 40-year-old policy of multiculturalism — protecting each minority’s right to its distinctive languages and customs — has faltered by fostering division and social dislocation.
This week, for instance, at his party’s annual conference, David Cameron, the new leader of the opposition Conservatives, bemoaned the existence of “communities where people from different ethnic origins never meet, never talk, never go into each other’s homes.”
Moreover, the police in Windsor, west of London, reported Thursday that a dairy owned by a Muslim businessman had been attacked by non-Muslims protesting plans to build an Islamic center in the town.
Mr. Straw said that he had raised the issue — first with women in his office and then publicly — because he felt uncomfortable if he could not see an interlocutor’s face. But his comments raised suspicions that, as politicians jostle for high office, they were competing, in the words of the maverick legislator George Galloway, “to grab the headlines as the hammer of the Muslims.”